Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Gia Coppola
Starring: Maya Hawke, Andrew Garfield, Nat Wolff
By: Tom Moore
The sophomore feature film from writer/director Gia Coppola, “Mainstream”(2021), is another dive into the toxic side of rising social media stardom that doesn’t live up to its potential.
The film is a cautionary tale of searching for stardom that follows a young girl named Frankie (Maya Hawke) who doesn’t believe she’s destined for anything more than her crappy bartending gig until she meets a unique stranger named Link (Andrew Garfield). Link is an eccentric nobody that inspires Frankie to collaborate with him after she sees him have a public rant about art. After bringing in her friend Jake (Nat Wolff), Frankie begins to work with Link on developing a satirical and narcissistic online personality named “No One Special.” They quickly gain a following with Link’s overt messaging for people to put down their phones and the wild looking game show they create around it. However, as Link’s secretive personal life begins to come out and his antics are questioned, things begin to spiral for the trio and the cost of internet celebrity stardom becomes clear.
There are certain elements of “Mainstream” that work in delving into the rising stardom of a narcissistic online personality and utilizing Link’s secrecy to create an interesting narrative. The film definitely tries to dissect whether Link’s message is resoundingly helpful or hypocritical. He’s essentially a social influencer that hates social influencers. He tries to use their platform to get people off it. In some circles, mainly his diehard followers, he’d be seen as this brilliant revolutionary, but to others he’d be seen as this giant hypocrite who goes directly against his own messaging by using YouTube as his platform. There are interesting aspects to the way the film calls this out and how it mixes with Link’s secret personal life coming to light.
Garfield also makes Link and his No One Special persona endlessly captivating and energetic with his incredibly lively performance. Through all of Link’s craziness and the lengths he goes to interact with people, Garfield is fully committed in a way no one has seen before with him and even for this film’s big shortcomings, it’s easily one of his best performances to date. However, Garfield’s performance and interesting ideas aren’t enough to save this film from being an absolutely mind-boggling experience.
Outside of Garfield, none of the performances feel as special or remarkable and its mostly because every other character is super bland compared to Link. Don’t get me wrong, he is the star of the show and even if everyone had these fun, likeable personalities Link would likely try to extinguish them. Because of this though, everything with Frankie and Jake falls super flat and the film fails to utilize the great talent it has under Garfield. Even Link’s personal secrets aren’t utilized in a very thrilling way as the film leans too much away from it, so it just feels like a narrative we check in with every once in a while, rather than one we’re constantly thinking about.
Frankly, this film is overly concerned with its narcissistic social star dissection that’s overly familiar and doesn’t hit the remarkably thought-provoking ideas it wants to. In terms of its basic narrative of becoming the monsters they were rebelling against or letting fame break what their initial intentions were, it’s basically the same storyline we’ve seen play out on tv show episodes – “iCarly Saves TV” (2008) is a good example honestly. Its messages and dissection into Link’s hypocrisy feel half-baked and ride the wave of the whole social media is poison mentality. Even the ending is super underwhelming and doesn’t commit to seeing Link’s final act through to the bitter end. It gives him this bode of confidence based on his audience’s reaction, but it’s tough to say where it really would go because people are super fickle. The idea of them possibly following his advice and being soldiers in his revolution or driving him further into madness by giving him fake confidence would’ve been really interesting to see play out, but it never happens. We barely get to see Frankie fight against the monster she helped create and it’s super disappointing.
Stylistically, “Mainstream” is nearly unwatchable at times because of how obnoxiously in your face it is with emojis and other blasts of color and flashes. The film being so up front and in your face with its style might fit with Link’s personality and antics, but it’s not fun to watch – like at all. It’s almost nauseating how the film has the quick pauses and flashes of text and emojis just fly across the screen. It’s a situation where this kind of style might work with the tone and antics of its central character but detracts from the overall viewing experience.
Although it features some good narrative potential and a performance from Garfield that’s one of his most memorable, “Mainstream” just hits bland narrative beats about social media’s toxicity with an equally bland cast of characters and an overt visual style that’s far from pleasing to the eye.